GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – A man was convicted this week on two federal charges after he diverted the Platte River by hand through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan.
"These allegations of tampering and vandalism by a man-made diversion of water at Platte River are disturbing," said U.S. Attorney Mark Totten in a statement. "The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and the Great Lakes are national gems, and my office takes preserving our natural treasures very seriously."
Andrew Howard, a 63-year-old man from Frankfort, Michigan, took a shovel to the park on Aug. 15, 2022. According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, he dug sediment and rocks out of the river basin and then stacked large rocks on a self-constructed dam.
That diverted the river's natural flow through the newly dug channel out to Lake Michigan. After 17 months, the spit the man dug through, finally started to reform. Photos before the illegal diversion show the meandering river passing through the sandy spit parallel to the shoreline. The egress to the lake was nearly impossible for boaters, according to local media.
"Within days, the natural power of the water and the dam caused the new channel to reach approximately 200 feet wide," officials said in a press release. "The diversion created an unauthorized access for large boats to enter Platte Bay."
A trial brief mentioned an "influx in the number of fishermen that came to Platte River boat launch to take advantage of the favorable conditions of access created by the new channel," according to Michigan Live.
An aerial photo after the diversion shows a much deeper river with a channel directly out to the lake. The continuation of the river appears to be dammed.
The Park Service investigated for months and sent out pleas to the public for information before Howard was charged.
According to court testimony from a park ranger, "Howard dammed the river after being unable to navigate his boat into the bay that morning and later caught a coho salmon once the mouth was deepened," Michigan Live reported.
A ranger presented receipts for the shovel from the hardware store near Howard's home where he bought it. Another ranger testified to seeing Howard using the shovel and stacking the rocks, which was corroborated by other witnesses.
The fisherman is now awaiting sentencing for tampering and vandalism of a national park, which are federal misdemeanors. He faces a maximum of six months in prison, a $5,000 dollar fine, 5 years probation and mandatory restitution for diverting the Platte River.
"Mr. Howard had a policy dispute with the National Park Service and took matters into his own hands, breaking the law rather than using lawful means to advocate for his position," Totten said. "His actions resulted in significant financial and ecological harm and altered the landscape so many enjoyed."
According to local media, Howard was not the only one who had a gripe with the river flow. The state and the NPS dredged the river, creating an entry to the lake, every fall from 1968 to 2013, according to The Record Eagle in Traverse City, Michigan.
The paper found that dredging started a year after seven salmon fishermen drowned when a storm blew over the lake and overturned fishing boats as they attempted to return to port via the Platte's shallow mouth. Michigan Live called this the "Coho fever disaster."
Michigan Live spoke to an official at the Department of Natural Resources who said that the NPS didn't like the dredging sediment deposited on the coast. A 2016 NPS report said that continually adding layers stopped dune vegetation.
The official continued to say to Michigan Live that the illegal diversion actually helped the river by lowering upstream water levels by a foot. The DNR noted the oversaturated marshland and erosion from high water levels. And the new access solved a public safety concern by allowing rescue boats to easily access the bay. The area is popular with kayakers and beachgoers.
Salmon proponents said that the diversion also makes a clearer path for Coho salmon returning to the river each year.
The NPS had planned a $500,000 project to remove the dredging debris to allow nature to elongate the sandy spit and create a better environment for the endangered piping plover bird. That is on hold.